I was on vacation a couple of years ago when I got an email from a former critique group partner. At first I couldn't even recognize his name, but I opened the email because it was kind of familiar.
It started by praising my suggestions in the past as the most valuable he'd ever gotten (I don't remember being brilliant, but okay) and then telling me the great news. He'd finished his book! It wasn't one of the ones I'd seen, but a new one. He'd had many health issues, so it had been very hard to write, but he'd pushed through.
I looked again at his name, and then I remembered. That guy! He'd turned in sections of different stories as part of this one novel-length group I'd been in. He had argued with me about every point I ever made. I don't think he ever changed anything in response to my suggestions, and later on, he stopped participating. Except now he wanted my help.
Okay. I mean, I blog for QueryTracker, and I teach query-writing workshops, and I've done what I consider mentoring. I can see why he might think I'd do this.
Without asking anything about my life, he then explained that he wanted me to read his novel, edit it, and tell him how to publish it.
Mmhmm. Of course you do.
Here's where I will now jump in and admit I did the next thing wrong.
What I should have done was deleted the email right here and never thought about it again. Let him think I was dead or that I was so special that I'd forgotten everyone I'd met on the way up to stardom (pardon me while I laugh a bit) or that my personal secretary had deleted the message by accident.
I should have guarded my time, so I'm going to pass this on to you, dear QueryTracker readers: guard your time. You have been given twenty-four hours every day to spend on an assortment of activities. Your writing (and associated efforts) take time, so you need to budget your time.
Critiquing other writers is an excellent use of your time. Interacting with other writers is going to help both you and them by creating relationships. You'll form loose partnerships with other writers and discover how much you have in common as well as what makes you different. You'll learn and they'll learn. You'll encourage each other. You'll inform each other.
But at the same time, note that some people are not going to give as much as they expect you to give them. They think it's fine to join a query-letter critique forum and immediately post their critique, their synopsis, and their first five pages, then never comment on anyone else's submissions. When they have what they want, they leave. With those folks, they don't want a give-and-take relationship, so it's okay to back off.
Anyhow, I made a mistake and answered this guy. I said I was sorry to hear he'd had health problems but glad to hear he'd finished his book. I pointed him toward QueryTracker.net as a resource for finding literary agents.
And then I told him (Dumb, Jane. Dumb) that I'd look over his first three chapters, but not the whole book. I told him I didn't have time to do an edit, but I could give some overall comments based on the first three chapters. Besides, I explained, most of the errors a writer makes will evidence themselves in the first three chapters, so that would be enough.
He wrote back and sent the whole book.
"Once you start it," he said, "you will want to read the whole thing."
(Imagine my "What the hell?" face.)
I opened the document. It was 300,000 words.
I'm going to repeat that: three. hundred. thousand. words.
The first chapter alone was forty pages long, and it was filled with all the same mistakes he'd been making a decade earlier. So I guess I'd given him the most valuable feedback anyone ever had, but that doesn't mean he'd opted to follow it.
And this is the second thing I'm going to point out about takers. It's not just that they don't give back when a community generously shares with them. Of course we all start out as information-sinks rather than information-sources. That's the nature of learning.
The difference is that someone who wants to belong to a community comes to that community with an attitude of participation. They want to work.
They want to grow. So they look hard at where they're falling short and focus on those areas. They keep reassessing, and they keep retargeting their efforts.
The taker who shows up and says, "Fix my query so I can get a bestseller" isn't willing to put in the effort. The person who sits around for an hour or so trying to think of who in their critiquing past might know how to get a book published, then launches their book in that person's general direction even when that person says no, isn't willing to put in the effort. And this interaction showed it.
Why? First, no sense of what the market will bear. Three hundred thousand words is three times longer than most publishers will consider from a first-time author.
Second, no evidence that he'd in any way tried to improve his craft. The only thing he'd changed in a decade was his subject matter.
And third, he'd invested nothing in trying to restore a realtionship with the person he was culling for a favor that would involve at least a hundred hours of her time. Just, "Get me published."
Since chapters should be ten pages long rather than forty, and I'd volunteered to read three, I read the first ten pages and skimmed the next twenty. I sent him some suggestions, starting with removing all the unnecessary stage directions and repetition, removing the head-hopping, and beginning where the story actually began. I rewrote a 550-word paragraph to show how you could do it at half the length.
He never replied, proving how right I'd been to guard my time.
Reading that book would have taken weeks; critiquing it would have taken even longer, and what would have been the result? Would he have pared that book down to a slimmer volume or maybe a trilogy? Or would he have decided I was just an ignorant hater and looked for someone who would snap their fingers and publish his work?
Guard your time. Nurture relationships with other writers who are interested in you and your work as well as their own. Trade critiques, and when you find brilliant critique partners, invest your efforts in working with them. In fact, seek them out by reading their work and approaching the ones who seem like a good fit.
And grow. Always grow. Never be afraid of working hard, but keep in mind that a lot of that effort has to go into your own writing.